Why Chobani yoghurt king Hamdi Ulukaya is giving away cash grants to Aussie food businesses

The founder of billion-dollar yoghurt empire Chobani has extended the brand’s food incubator program Down Under and will offer “no-strings-attached” grants to local food entrepreneurs.

However, experts and businesses say there’s more to do to empower early stage businesses to develop food products ready for the shelves of big supermarkets.

Chobani founder Hamdi Ulukaya was in Melbourne on Tuesday to launch Monash University’s food incubator facility, outlining plans for a four-month product development program out of the Monash centre, which will include equity-free grants of $10,000 for successful applicants to start developing their food businesses.

“I love what’s happening with food startups here in Australia and want to share what we’ve learned when it comes to scaling and fighting convention, like we’ve done with our other incubator programs,” Ulukaya said in a statement yesterday.

“This is a no-strings-attached, grant-based program to support entrepreneurs so we can further fuel the food revolution.”

The global yoghurt business, which Bloomberg estimates has turnover of more than $US1 billion, is just one of many big food retailers Monash is looking to form relationships with after unveiling its food incubation facility this week.

The facility includes three industrial kitchens, a space for group-work and a “scale-up” food lab, and the aim is to get 10-15 market-ready food businesses through the venue each year, says the university’s director of food and agriculture, Nicolas Georges.

“What I would expect to see is businesses that will be creating foods that focus on new technologies,” Georges tells SmartCompany, saying projects experimenting with everything from smart packaging to new meat-product alternatives will be able to use the space through a variety of incubators and events. 

So far, the site has secured partnerships with Rocket Seeder, My Other Kitchen and Badalya to run a range of programs.

The Chobani incubator scheme will run from February to April in 2018, and Georges says the university is also in talks with a wide range of other big supermarkets, distributors and logistics businesses to ensure those developing businesses through the facility have an leg-up to get product into stores.

“We’re quite hopeful partners will come on board and give these guys a go … to open the doors, and to get food startups the chance to go straight to consumers,” Georges says.

The hub is designed to level the playing field and give small businesses the chance to be inventive with products in a space dominated by big players, he says.

For SMEs, finding a place to experiment and create a product is difficult.”

Former Shark Tank contestant and founder of dairy business Over the Moo Alex Houseman tells SmartCompany that in general, smaller Australian food players face significant obstacles. Despite their desire to create inventive products, the local sector is dominated by a handful of big producers, he says.

“Compared to other countries, by nature of the structure of food retail here, the diversity of brands and products is much lower than other countries,” Houseman says. 

Hearing news of the Monash incubator this morning, Houseman says that while more support for early stage businesses wouldn’t make-or-break their success, it would hopefully “turn the volume up”on diversity of products out there.

“When it comes to driving innovation, the only players that can drive that innovation [in food] are the big players,” he says.

But in industries other than food, progress is driven by “smaller players who have nothing to lose”, so more support for the smaller end of town food would be very useful.

“A large amount of the agriculture and food sector is coming out of Victoria,” Georges says.

“We hope to be able to shape the current sector … at the moment, it’s hard to tell what the impact will be.”

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